Game 26: Michigan Wolverines 73 - Indiana Hoosiers 69
Michigan 16-10 (6-7), 7th in Big Ten Conference
It's not often you can talk about a game in which your team didn't have a field goal in the final five minutes of BOTH halves and still say, "At least we won." For the second straight game Michigan came out of the gates like a thoroughbred, sprinted to a commanding almost insurmountable lead, stumbled down the stretch, and managed to hang on to win by a nose. But, for the second straight game, I can write Michigan won.
As I wrote a few days ago, Michigan is growing up. Their shot selection is better. Their offense doesn't resemble a kindergarten playground. Their defense is consistent. And night in, night out, someone new is stepping up to lead the team. On Saturday, the newest member of the career-high-day club was Tim Hardaway Jr., who was 9-11 from the floor and 4-6 from three.
Even so, there's still a long way to go. Michigan's last two wins have come over the 9th and 10th place teams in the Big Ten. And in filling the win column, Michigan has come dangerously close to filling the loss column as well. In both games the Wolverines have nearly squandered double digit leads with less than two minutes to go. Seemingly confused to have such a big lead Michigan became complacent and sloppy with the basketball. Turnovers led to easy buckets. As the lead shrank the Wolverines became noticeably tenser. The Wolverines clanked 11 free throws with under five minutes to play. Even the normally stone cold Zack Novak bricked one.
But Michigan won. 26 games into the season, John Beilein seems to have found a starting combination that works. Stu Douglasshas finally found the touch that seemed to have deserted him early in the conference season. For the third straight game the Junior guard shot 50% or better, and contributed 13 points. Zack Novak was his normal feisty, gritty self and not only lead the team in rebounds, but notched 10 points and led the team in assists! I think that's the first time all season that someone other than Darius Morris has done that. Speaking of which, Morris had another stellar game, with 5 assists, 6 boards and 15 points. Jordan Morgan was the only starter not in double digits.
We're seeing flashes of what this young team is capable of. While it's hard to draw grandiose conclusions about where the team will end up at season's end, Michigan should be competitive in every game it plays from here out. As a result, they have a chance of dancing in March. But the sledding gets considerably tougher from here out.
This is a weird team. Despite watching a number of games, following them intently, and listening to everything from podcasts to interviews I can't pick out some grand narrative that describes them. Every time I think I've got something down, they do something different that blows my storyline out of the water. This isn't a bad thing. The team seems to be in a constant state of evolution. It is, per se, growing up.
Some things will seem remarkably easy (grabbing big leads) while others will seem like climbing Mt. Everest (holding onto those leads). Different players turn into leaders on any given night, but in the background you have Morris' talent and Novak's grit guiding this team. But these two kids are still so young that it's hard to say what they will do or how they will manage it all.
This season Michigan has learned what it means to compete with the best. They have learned what a victory in East Lansing means. They're learning how to win on the road. They now know how to build leads on inferior competition. The next step in this growing process is learning how to keep their intensity when it seems like the other team is ready to quit. As Tim Hardaway admitted during an interview for Inside Michigan Basketball this week, he has his first taste of what it means to compete on every play when Michigan squared off against Syracuse a few months earlier. Now he, and the rest of the team, must take that lesson and apply it to games that are not against the top five.
Michigan's obviously learned how to win ugly. Now they have to learn how to win without letting it get ugly. Their first chance to do that is Wednesday.